- Several of President Donald Trump’s close associates have now been convicted of crimes, and many more have engaged in corrupt activity in office.
- Why did the president who planned to hire “the best people” end up surrounded by moochers, grifters, and criminals?
- Because working for Trump is horrible and unfulfilling – unless you plan to use the job as an opportunity to stuff everything you can in your pockets.
- We haven’t seen the last of the indictments.
President Donald Trump said he would hire “the best people.” So why did he hire so many criminals, moochers, grifters, and crooks?
Consider his inner circle. There are the literal felons: His former campaign manager (Paul Manafort), his former deputy campaign manager (Rick Gates), his former national security adviser (Michael Flynn), his former personal lawyer: All now convicted of felonies. One of them, former lawyer Michael Cohen,said he committed two of those felonies because the president told him to.
Then, there are the moochers and grifters who haven’t yet been charged with anything. Some of these people are, or have been, in the Cabinet: former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
Their abusive behaviour in office – whether having taxpayers pay for private jet flights, trying to use the office to squeeze a franchise out of the Chick-fil-A corporation, or using official events to benefit a relative’s business – has frequently flirted with the boundary of corruption and comedy.
There is Wilbur Ross, the Commerce secretary, who continued to hold personal investments in violations of his agreements to divest them – and, in other cases, met technical divestment requirements by moving assets into a trust that benefits his relatives – while making policy decisions relevant to those investments.
For example, his trust held interests in a major maker of auto parts at the same time Ross was entrusted with the task of recommending auto parts tariff policies to the president. In one instance, Ross sold a Russian shipping company’s stock short when he knew Forbes was working on a story about his improper financial interest that could be damaging to the firm.
And then there are Trump’s two first supporters in Congress: Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, now both indicted on accusations of boneheadedly obvious financial crimes.
Collins stands very credibly accused of insider trading, for having passed nonpublic information to his son about a tiny Australian biotech company whose board Collins served on – after he learned the company’s main drug had failed clinical trials but before that failure was announced publicly. The indictment said the information was used to make timely trades of stock. (Cameron is also accused of giving that information to Stephen Zarsky, his fiancée’s father.)
You’re not supposed to do that. That’s very illegal.
Hunter is accused of illegally using campaign funds to support his personal lifestyle. Among many other personal expenses, prosecutors say his campaign paid for a trip to a casino, paid the bill when he took his mum out for Mother’s Day (twice), and paid for Hunter’s “Hawaii shorts,” which Hunter’s wife (and codefendant) instructed him to buy at a golf pro shop so that they could disguise the expense as “balls for the wounded warriors.”
Hunter’s wife is accused of having the campaign pay a $US700 dental bill and then claiming the money was for a charitable contribution.
What do all these people have in common, besides their association with Trump? Greed and recklessness.
Trump is drawn to a personality type, and that type is drawn to him
“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.Grab ’em by the pussy.”
It’s a misogynistic statement and an admission of sexual assault. It is also a claim of impunity: I can do this thing I want, and I will get away with it.
In a sense, Trump was right: He never got indicted for improperly touching a woman, he never even faced significant negative press about it until the tape happened to be released a decade after it was made, and he still got elected president.
This expectation of impunity has informed the president’s behaviour in a wide variety of areas. It is also how he has come to be surrounded by crooks.
Most of the more normal people who would have staffed a Republican administration have stayed away from this particular president. In some cases, that’s because they find him morally repulsive. In other cases, it might be because they do not want to work in a place where they cannot trust anyone, and where an ignorant and capricious president is likely to undermine their policy initiatives on a whim.
Work with or around Trump is likely to be extremely unpleasant – unless your objective is to stuff whatever you can into your pockets while you are there, and then you might think Trump’s combination of no ethics and no supervision will work to your advantage.
This is the tip of the iceberg
Remember, Collins’ indictment reads like a World’s Dumbest Criminals script.
Over and over again, the actually indicted Trump associates’ alleged misdeeds (and in some cases, convicted misdeeds) have followed a theme: Acts so reckless, they must have been confident nobody was looking.
For crimes that took place before the election, like Manafort’s, maybe the cavalier attitude came from a correct assumption that white-collar crimes would go unnoticed and not prosecuted as long as they did not draw the scrutiny that comes with being associated with a president.
For crimes after the election, like the insider-trading scheme Collins is alleged to have hatched on the White House lawn, maybe the assumption was that Trump would exert effective political control over the Justice Department and save his friends from going to jail.
In each case, the confidence was misplaced. Oops.
But think of all the crimes that aren’t quite so obvious, that we haven’t learned about yet. Do you really think Trump’s only criminal associates are the ones who have been indicted so far?
The system is working – because Trump failed to build an all-crony government
It is a testament to our criminal-justice institutions that all these prosecutions of the president’s associates have been conducted by people the president could, technically, have fired.
The investigation into Cohen wasn’t even conducted by the special counsel – it was run by the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, an office led by Trump’s handpicked appointee, whom Democrats were fretting just a year ago had been improperly personally interviewed by the president before his appointment.
“There’s no reason for President Trump to be meeting with candidates for these positions, which create the appearance that he may be trying to influence or elicit inappropriate commitments from potential U.S. attorneys,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Politico last October regarding Trump’s interview of now US Attorney Jeffrey Berman.
And she’s right that his interview created an improper appearance. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped Berman’s office from ordering a highly unusual raid on the president’s lawyer’s office, and then securing a plea deal with significant jail time – and a direct implication of the president in a scheme to violate campaign-finance laws – just four months later.
Despite the president’s ranting and raving and wailing on Twitter, and despite his dismissal of the FBI director, the Justice Department appears to be doing approximately what it ought to be doing regarding the president and his associates.
This fact owes a lot to strong norms within the department that preserve the political autonomy of prosecutorial offices. And it owes a lot to a handful of personnel choices Trump has made – and then publicly regretted making – about leadership at the Justice Department.
Say what you will about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but he appears to be motivated by a set of sincere ideological convictions about immigration and crime and civil rights, not by a desire to use his office to obtain a used mattress from the Trump Hotel.
Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is enough of a garden-variety Republican that when George W. Bush nominated him to an appellate judgeship, Maryland’s Democratic senators blocked his confirmation.
There is enough non-corrupt staff at the Department of Justice that the president can’t shield his cronies from prosecution with a few firings. This is a lesson he learned after he fired James Comey – it created a big mess and it didn’t even work.
Trump has not left Robert Mueller in place for a year and a half out of a respect for prosecutorial norms. It’s because he knows firing him would do more harm than good.
Trump’s administration is a den of thieves. But he failed to appoint the thieves to a few key positions, and that has made a lot of difference.
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